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Woodie King, Jr. to Retire June 30 as Head of New Federal Theatre

Stage Directions • Theatre Buzz • May 11, 2021

Woodie King, Jr. Photo courtesy New Federal Theatre

Woodie King, Jr., Founder and Producing Director of New Federal Theatre (NFT), will retire from leadership of the famed theater company on June 30, 2021, handing the baton to NFT’s newly appointed Artistic Director, Elizabeth Van Dyke. We at Stage Directions wish Mr. King well with his next act as well as wishing Ms. Van Dyke well in her new role leading the New Federal Theatre.

Mr. King will remain on NFT’s board of directors, but his creative projects will change tracks. He is writing a book on Black Theater in New York and is associate producer of an animated film for Netflix, Bud, not Buddy, an adaptation of the historical fiction novel by Christopher Paul Curtis about a ten-year-old boy’s journey through Michigan during the Great Depression seeking a father whom he has never met.

On May 19, 2020 the Off-Broadway Alliance named Woodie King, Jr. a “Legend of Off Broadway,” recognizing sustained achievement in Off Broadway theater. In recent years, he has been the subject of biographical documentaries including The King of Stage: the Woodie King, Jr. Story directed by Juney Smith and TCG’s Legacy Leaders of Color video project. His numerous awards include an Obie Award for Sustained Achievement, TCG’s Peter Zeisler Award, AEA’s Paul Robeson Award, AEA’s Rosetta LeNoire Award, an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Wayne State University, a Doctorate of Fine Arts from the College of Wooster, and Honorary Doctorates from Lehman College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In 2012 he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and received the Innovative Theatre Award’s Sustained Excellence in Theatre.

Woodie King, Jr. and Elizabeth Van Dyke. Photo by Lia Chang.

NFT turned 50 last year. It will continue to be known as “Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre.”

Woodie King, Jr. founded New Federal Theatre in 1970 to give voice to primarily African American playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and young people entering the American theater. Its mission was “to integrate artists of color and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession and by presenting plays by writers of color and women to integrated, multicultural audiences – plays which evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re-creations of ourselves.” To-date, the organization has produced over 450 mainstage plays, an astonishing and influential record of achievement, sending multiple plays to Broadway and launching numerous minority and women playwrights and actors into prominent careers.

Since 1975, the company has also conducted training workshops in playwriting and drama workshops for adults and teens. They became a powerhouse program whose contributions have not yet been fully appreciated, although many of its alumni are now legendary.

Mr. King’s theater and its workshops have helped bring to national attention such playwrights as Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, J.e Franklin, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang, Ron Milner, Joseph Lazardi, Damien Leake, Genny Lim, Laurence Holder, Alexis DeVeaux, and others. Actor veterans include Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Chadwick Boseman, Robert Downey, Jr., Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Jackée Harry, Phylicia Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Garrett Morris, Sam MacMurray, Debbie Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Reginald Vel-Johnson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ella Joyce, Starletta DuPois, S. Epatha Merkson, Oz Scott, Trazana Beverley, Morgan Freeman, Anna Maria Horsford, Ruby Dee, and many more.

Other noted artists who worked at New Federal Theatre include Lloyd Richards, Charles Nelson Reilly, Melba Moore, Vinie Burrows, Art McFarland, Kathleen Chalfant, Earle Hyman, Roger Robinson, Ellen Holly, Giancarlo Esposito, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Max Roach, Shauneille Perry, and many more.

NFT was originally inspired by a deep study of the original Federal Theatre Project and the vision of its leaders including Hallie Flanagan, Orson Welles, and John Houseman. But the theater’s artistic focus has always been on issues of the “now.” This is reflected, in recent seasons, by productions including “Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman, Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green, and Looking for Leroy, a theatrical portrait of Amiri Baraka which won six AUDELCO Awards in the 2019 season.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, as NFT has embraced the digital world and adapted to becoming creative within it, Mr. King has been collaborating in leadership of the company with actress/director/producer Elizabeth Van Dyke, who was appointed Artistic Director last year while Mr. King retained the role of Producing Director. Ms. Van Dyke has worked since June 2020 with Mr. King on all the company’s current programming including its next project in June 2021: The Ntozake Shange Reading Series of New Plays. This series has been adapted to the digital space to help fulfill the goal of developing African-American writers and selecting plays that NFT may subsequently present as full productions.

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